By Brandon Arnold
After President Obama sketched out at least $41 billion in annual new spending in his State of the Union address, taxpayers must now brace themselves for the release of his budget next week. One area of particular concern should be the president’s defense agenda. Early reports suggest that Obama will propose a discretionary military budget of $534 billion, which would exceed by $11 billion the spending caps he agreed to in 2011 via the Budget Control Act.
The caps – often mistakenly referred to as “sequestration” – have largely held discretionary spending in check and helped significantly reduce the massive budget deficit. This has been welcome news for taxpayers and deficit hawks, but some who might call themselves military hawks are far from pleased. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Two of Congress’s most outspoken senators, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have called the caps on military spending “mindless.” The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) stated that he’s “pretty much open to any solution that would fix sequestration.”
Yet these are actually two different concepts: the less-than-discriminate expenditure reductions of sequestration are only triggered if Congress fails to make more rational, deliberate funding choices to keep overall spending levels under the caps. To avoid the former, leaders need only choose to do the latter.
Never mind that some have taken a third, much more dangerous course: they’ve begun to “fix” sequestration by misappropriating funds in the war budget or Overseas Contingency Operations account (OCO) which is not subject to the budget caps.
The president is expected to request $51 billion for OCO – a reduction from the $64 billion appropriated in the current fiscal year to reflect the significant troop reductions in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for taxpayers, OCO funds are increasingly being used for non-war functions. Many budget watchdogs have rightfully called it a “slush fund” that allows Congress to skirt the budget caps. This practice must come to an end, and the harder work of setting priorities must begin. Such a task is always controversial, but where might it lead?
The troubled Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), to give one example, has often been in the crosshairs – especially after a report by the Pentagon’s director of operational testing that said the LCS “is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat.” McCain noted, “It is a program that has been in trouble from its beginning, and had significant cost overruns… And it will be the subject of significant scrutiny and oversight in the coming year.” Reports suggest next week’s budget will fund construction of three new LCS’s as part of an $11.6 billion package to build a variety of new ships, setting the stage for another showdown.
Another test of resolve is the Tomahawk missile. In the President’s last budget he proposed a $128 million reduction for Tomahawk. While on the surface this may have appeared to be a cost-cutting move, his budget simultaneously recommended funding a replacement missile system (called the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile or LRASM) at a whopping $203 million – more than offsetting any savings. The Senate Armed Services Committee subsequently recommended cutting LRASM and continuing to fund the Tomahawk. Hopefully, lawmakers can agree to fund just one missile and let taxpayers off the hook for duplicative weapon systems.
Yet another frequent target of scrutiny, the F-35, should be front-and-center as Obama will reportedly request $10.6 billion for 57 new jets in his budget. Over the course of the development of the F-35, it has repeatedly missed operational deadlines by a decade or more and exceeded anticipated costs by hundreds of billions of dollars. Not only are taxpayers suffering, but serious questions are also being raised about the aircraft’s usefulness and capabilities for future conflicts. Lawmakers need to hold the appropriate parties accountable.
Obama’s budget proposal will undoubtedly launch Congress into a host of political debates on matters ranging from health care to immigration to energy. But his military proposals should be near the top of the list for budgetary watchdogs. Fiscal irresponsibility in this area undermines a key balance for achieving true national security: nimble, effective military assets and resilient economic strength. Our service people and our taxpayers deserve better.
Arnold is executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.